REMEMBERS

LAUREN BACALL

1924 – 2014

Lauren Bacall had “the look,” cementing her role in cinema history.

Lauren Bacall’s footprints are not embedded in cement at Grauman’s Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard.  For film fans that flock to the fabled movie theater, which acts as a holy shrine that honors the most iconic stars of Hollywood, it seemed like an injustice that her imprints are not left there amongst the other legendary stars of the silver screen.  But there is a story behind why she is not there.  Lauren Bacall was invited to lay her mark on the courtyard in 1953 at the premier of How to Marry a Millionaire.  However,  feeling that anybody with a movie could get their prints on the famed courtyard, Lauren Bacall became the first person to refuse the honor.  In a statement to the press Bacall wrote “’Before I came to Hollywood, Grauman’s Chinese was something very special to me – it meant not only achievement – it was the Hall of Fame of the motion picture industry and the people in it were unforgettable and irreplaceable. I don’t think of myself as either – I feel that my career is undergoing a change and I want to feel I’ve earned my place with the best my business has produced.’ As a result she was never invited by Grauman’s again.  But it was in Lauren Bacall’s nature to defy the Hollywood elite and go against what was expected from an actress of her era.  Smart, bold, blunt and tough, Lauren Bacall wasn’t your average Hollywood star.  She looked like a lady, but she could get her hands dirty and could go toe to toe with the tough guys.  As time went by Bacall’s feelings on the courtyard proved to be true, but Bacall’s statement on her own career was another story.  Lauren Bacall proved to be one of the most famous and respected actresses in American cinema.  The true blue meaning of the term “movie star.”  Her death at age 89 took away one of the few remaining actresses from the golden age of Hollywood.

Working as a teenage model, Lauren Bacall appeared on covers of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar before the age of eighteen. When Howard Hawkes’ wife saw her on a cover of a magazine, Hawkes had her flown to Hollywood for a screen test.

A Jewish girl brought up in the Bronx, Lauren Bacall started her career in front of the camera as teenage model, appearing on the covers of Harpers Bazarre and Vouge before the age of eighteen.  Entering the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, Bacall continued to work as a fashion model by day and a theater usher by night when she got her first crack at Broadway with a walk on in a production called Johnny 2X4 in 1942.  More small parts in Broadway productions followed, but eyes were looking at her in far off Hollywood.  Nancy Hawkes, the wife of director Howard Hawkes, saw Bacall on a cover of a magazine and suggested to her husband that she had the look for the femme fatale in his next picture, To Have or Have Not.  Hawkes contacted Bacall’s people and had the nineteen year old girl flown to Hollywood for a screen test.  The story goes that having never been in front of a camera before, a nervous Bacall looked down at her feet and then, with her chin still pressed against her chest, she lifted her eyes to give a piercing and seductive glare into the camera.  That image blew the lid off of everyone in the room.  That stare would become known by film fans as “The Look.”  Hawks signed Bacall to a seven year contract, became her personal manager and he and Nancy began to groom her for Hollywood success.  Not long afterwards Bogie met Bacall.

He was a 43 year old married man and Hollywood tough guy. She was a 19 year old Jewish girl from The Bronx making her first film. But together Bogie and Bacall became one of the most legendary and functional couples in Hollywood history.

Casting Lauren Bacall opposite legendary Hollywood tough guy Humphrey Bogart not only ignited a fire on screen, but off screen as well.  She was a nineteen year old girl making her first movie.  He was a forty four year old married man, albeit in a rotten marriage, who broke heads instead of hearts.  But there was a magical chemistry between the two, and the audience could feel the raw sexual tension drip off of the screen.  Bogart met his match with Bacall.  She was tough, sexy, liked to drink, liked to smoke and didn’t take shit from people.  To Have and Have Not was released in 1945 and was a box office hit, making Lauren Bacall an overnight sensation and the screen chemistry between Bogie and Bacall excited the audience.  Thus, when Bogart left his wife and married Bacall a year later, the audience was ecstatic that the onscreen love affair was now a real life one.  Bacall’s marriage to Bogart exalted her from starlet to movie star and together they became one of Hollywood’s legendary couples, both on screen and off.

While most Hollywood couples worked apart, thus fell apart, Bogie and Bacall were on fire when they were together and they were sought out as a pair time and time again.  Appearing together on radio and television, they made another three films together – The Big Sleep (1945), Dark Passage (1947), and Key Largo (1948) – all which were gigantic hits.  With her husky voice, blunt wise cracks and that piercing “look” Bacall was the perfect dame in any film noir, and Bogart was her go to hero.

Box office success both apart and together, Bogie and Bacall seemed to do everything together – and Bacall managed to domesticate Bogart giving him the new role as a family man.

But Bacall also had another effect over Bogart his previous wives lacked.  She seemed to be able to domesticate him.  His fourth marriage, Bogart settleed down and become a family man.  The couple had a pair of children, a boy and a girl, and movie magazines did stories on their home life, although there was plenty of late night parties and boozing for the couple.  But that was the difference with Bogie and Bacall.  They seemed to do everything as a couple and were happy doing it.  They backed each other up, supported each other’s projects, did public appearances together, shared each other’s politics and became a well-oiled unit.  Even as stars they were equally paired as box office draws both together and separately.  Bogie and Bacall walked side by side and hand in hand on the same path.  There was just something so right about them.

Beautiful, smart and tough, Lauren Bacall earned a reputation for being difficult to work of because she wasn’t a push over, which was not always popular by male movie executives during the 1940′s and 1950′s. However, the result of her decisions assured that she rarely made a bad film.

Now Lauren Bacall was very aware of her star power and she had high expectations about the scripts that she chose.  The result was that she rarely made a bad film, but due to her high standards she got the reputation of being difficult to work with.  In other words, she wasn’t a pushover, which didn’t always prove favorable to the studio heads, especially when it was coming from a woman.  But each film she made seemed to be a winner, and she worked with only the biggest stars and the best directors.  During her peak period she had hits with Bright Leaf with Gary Cooper, Young Man with a Horn with Kirk Douglas, Blood Alley with John Wayne, How to Marry a Millionaire with Marilyn Monroe, Betty Grable and William Powell, Patterns with Van Heflin and Designing Woman with Gregory Peck.

When Bogart died in 1957, leaving Bacall a widow at age 33, Bacall picked herself up and kept working, but her film roles decreased.  Instead, she left Hollywood and returned to New York to go back to her first love – Broadway, which she would be heavily involved in through to the 1980’s.  Appearing in a chain of shows on the New York stage, Bacall won Tony awards in 1970 for Applause and 1981 for Woman of the Year.  Bacall was also heavily involved in the Chicago theater scene in the 1970’s.  She was romantically connected briefly with Frank Sinatra, and had a short lived second marriage to two time Academy Award winner Jason Roberts Jr, who she had another son with.  Bacall made a few notable film appearances throughout her later years, including an emotional performance in John Wayne’s final film The Shootiest, a seat amongst a sea of famous faces in Murder on the Orient Express, the lead role in the star stalking thriller The Fan with James Garner, a cameo in the Academy Award winning thriller Misery, and a memorable appearance in the experimental film Dogville with Nicole Kidman.

Losing out on the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award in 1996 for “The Mirror has Two Faces,” Lauren Bacall was awarded and Honorary Oscar in 2010 in recognition of her contribution to the golden age of Hollywood.

But it was in 1996 that Lauren Bacall was finally nominated for her first Academy Award for Supporting Actress when she played Barbara Streisand’s mother in The Mirror Has Two Faces.  She was the favorite to win, and film fans worldwide thought that she was justified the Oscar.  However, the Oscar instead went to Juliette Binoche for The English Patient.  In one of the tackiest moments in Oscar history, Binoche took the stage and called out to Lauren Bacall with the Oscar in her hand and waved.  Bacall gave Binoche “the look.” Lauren Bacall was finally given an honorary Oscar in 2010 for recognition of her legendary status in the motion picture industry.  Let’s see Juliette Binoche get that honor when she’s in her 80s!

One of the greatest screen legends, Lauren Bacall was strength and class during her entire career.  Beloved by fans worldwide and throughout the ages, she will forever be remembered.  However, while the handprints in Grauman’s courtyard stand like fossils of Hollywood’s golden age, Lauren Bacall is not amongst them.  All we have of her is the timeless images of her on film, and the memory that “the look” burnt into our minds.

In the world of paranormal investigators, Steve DiSchiavi is unique.  He isn’t going into haunted locations with infra-red cameras or spirit voice boxes.  The tools of his trade are his sharp mind and dusty old books from libraries and archives.  He’s never seen a ghost, and he isn’t interested in seeing ghost.  But he knows fear, and he has a special way with dealing with frightened people.  Instead, Steve DiShiavi’s  job is to help the living by finding out the often sordid past of their haunted properties.  He knows every person and every house he sees.

A retired New York City homicide detective, Steve DiSchiavi uses his talents as an investigator to put together the puzzle pieces of the haunted past on Travel Channel’s The Dead Files.  Along with co-investigator Amy Allen, a powerful psychic who can talk with the dead, Steve has been helping home and business owners come to grips with the unknown entities that go bump in the night for six seasons.  While Amy walks through the buildings facing the dead, Steve conducts the interviews with the victims of the haunting about their experiences, and follows up with historians, law officials and archivists while digging through historical documents, manuscripts, archives and libraries in order to piece together the often brutal and terrifying past.  The results lead to Steve and Amy coming together and discovering how their information matches up. The results are always astonishing.  Amy and Steve are two investigators using different methods and techniques, but with one result – helping their clients find some sort of peace.

The cop and the psychic – Amy Allen and Steve DiSchiavi are a different kind of paranormal investigation team on Travel Channel’s hit TV series “The Dead Files.”

A tough guy with a heart of gold, Steve DiSchiavi is the public’s guide through the mysteries on The Dead Files.  With over thirty years on the mean streets of New York, Steve has seen a lot of gruesome stuff and dealt with a lot of hysterical people, preparing him for such an unusual job he has on The Dead Files.  Asking all the right questions, Steve has a calculating mind and a compassionate way with people.  He is able to get people to tell their stories, without fear of judgment, and can guide them to the answers that they need in order to deal with the things that they fear.

Last year I interviewed Steve’s partner Amy Allen, which proved to be one of PCA’s most popular interviews to date.  As a follow up to that interview, I was happy to be able to get Steve DiSchiavi, on the telephone to talk to him about his unique place in the world of paranormal investigations and about what he does, and how his life has been changed by The Dead Files.  A very different kind of interview by a very different kind of investigator, Steve proved to be talkative and friendly, but as tough as the New York streets that he came from.  Steve has seen a lot of scary things and a lot of death, and as a result one thing that doesn’t scare him is ghosts.

READ FULL INTERVIEW

REMEMBERS

ROBIN WILLIAMS

1951 – 2014

I was born in the 1970’s, which was a goldmine of pop culture goodness that scattered the cultural landscape.  Figures so bright and colorful that the youngest mind could recognize them immediately – Muppets, Village People, Star Wars, KISS, Farrah Fawcett, Mr. Kotter, Fonzie….and Mork.  Oh Mork.  Whether he was wearing the rainbow suspenders or his red spacesuit with the inverted silver triangle, Robin Williams stood amongst the most popular cultural icons of the era.  That friendly grin, the feathered hair, the silly voice.  He was funny, he was zany and he was just so weird.  He had a mouth that seemed to move faster than his brain and did the opposite of everything considered normal.  No wonder the entire world embraced Robin Williams when he made his cultural debut on Mork and Mindy. It was silly, but it was fun, and I just loved him.  I remember my mother bought me one of those Mork action figures that came with his spaceship that was in the form of an egg.  The action figure was the same size as the Kenner Star Wars figures and soon Mork was hanging out in my shoe box of action figures, along with Luke Skywalker and Han Solo and fighting Boba Fett and Bossk.  It was perfect marketing and a great toy, and was a cherished possession from my childhood.  You can say that from as early as I can remember Robin Williams was a part of my life.    Popular with kids, popular with parents, popular with people of all ages, Robin Williams was easy to love.

And that universal love was what seemed to help Robin Williams maintain his popularity throughout the decades, and why a stunned world is in mourning tonight.  It didn’t matter what Robin Williams did, we still loved him.  When he made a blockbuster movie we loved him.  When he made a stinker, and he made quite a few in his career, we still loved him.  In fact, nobody could make as many bad movies as Robin Williams did and still be a bankable star.  The public would always remember the dozen magical films he made and all would be forgiven.

Everybody has a favorite Robin Williams movie.  He crossed over so many genres.  He did dramas, comedies, horror films, family films, fantasy films, voiced animated characters and did comic book movies.  But while the world will always remember him as a comedian, the truth is that Robin Williams was a fine dramatic actor.  It was walking along that thin tightrope between pathos and comedy that Robin Williams was at his very best.  After Mork and Mindy was over, Robin Williams’ career went into a comedy slump, fueled by cocaine and alcohol and terrible scripts, until he reinvented himself as a dramatic actor in 1987 for Good Morning, Viet Nam which earned him his first Academy Award nomination.  A serious film about a funny man, Williams realized he had this ability to show a very human face behind the mask of the comedic character.  If he allowed the audience to see his human side, he could increase the emotional impact of his performance.  It was genius, and something few performers had the ability to do.  Through films like Dead Poet’s Society, Good Will Hunting, The Fisher King and Patch Adams we saw this very real eccentric man shine through the laughter, and that’s how we loved him.  There was something warm and comforting about Robin Williams’ performances.  Let’s face it.  If any other actor in the world did Mrs. Doubtfire it would have been downright creepy.  Only Robin Williams could pull that off.

My favorite Robin Williams movie is Good Will Hunting, the film in which he earned an Oscar for Best Supportying Actor for in 1997.  But I have always had a soft spot for Popeye.  Universally panned by critics ever since its release in 1980, Popeye was released during an era when comic based films were few and far between.  Williams’ big screen debut, the audience just didn’t get the larger than life characters and the cartoonish antics.  But later viewings show that Popeye was ahead of its time.  It was a visual masterpiece, and Williams and the rest of the company managed to capture the look and feel of the source material – both E.C. Segar’s original comic strip and the Max Flesher cartoons that followed.  And Robin Williams was absolutely brilliant in the role of the spinach eating sailorman.  He physically transformed his face, body language and voice to embody the iconic cartoon character, and through his whimsical performance, fueled by highly improvised mumbling, was still able to find little moments of sweetness and pathos which would give the audience a glimpse of the powerful dramatic actor he would eventually become.  Already getting raked over the coals by people writing tributes about Robin Williams tonight, Popeye is worth a second look at a young Robin Williams at the start of his career still developing as the master performer that he was destined to become.  He was already brilliant. Hollywood just didn’t know what to do with him yet.

But while he gave us laughter, something just wasn’t right inside of Robin Williams and we never knew it and he never talked about it.  He has become the personification of the classic image of the sad clown.  Laughing on the outside, crying on the inside.  Over the weeks to come much is going to be said and written about what happened to Robin Williams, and we’ll talk about mental health and suicide and prevention and hopefully a healthy discussion will take place that will help others that have hit a dark spot similar to the one that Robin Williams reached.  But we’ll also try to figure out just why Robin Williams decided to take his own life and ask how it could have been prevented.  But no matter what the experts say or the evidence shows, we will never ever know just what demons tore apart this funny and beloved man.  We will just never know.

As we mourn the loss of a beloved icon tonight, we should have comfort that the laughter and the joy that Robin Williams brought to our life will always remain.  Via his films and television programs, his interviews and his comedy performances, Robin Williams will always be as close to us as our DVD collection or YouTube.  Robin Williams may be gone, but his laughter will live on forever.

Nanu Nanu, Robin Williams, and goodbye.

REMEMBERS

JAMES GARNER

1924 – 2014

 

Beloved Hollywood tough guy James Garner passed away on July 19th, 2014 at the age of 86. A hero to multiple generation of fans, it was impossible to hate James Garner.

James Garner had a big part in ending a friendship of mine once.  It’s totally true. The story goes something like this.

I was drinking in a local pub on a Sunday afternoon with a group of friends, and one particular friend of mine was in a drunk and surly mood.  Now this guy had a few personal demons, and he could be a mean drunk.  But on this particular afternoon, despite being surrounded by good natured friends, he was in a real fighting mood and viciously put down and contradicted every single thing anybody said.  I don’t know if it was on purpose or just circumstantial, but I decided to give him leeway on both his drunkenness and his problems, and I just tried to ignore it.  I was having a fairly easy time blocking it out until he said one wrong thing – “I hate James Garner.”

I don’t recall just how the rough and tumble American actor even came up, but the idea of anybody hating James Garner was just so alien to me.  I mean, how could anybody hate James Garner?  Everybody loved that guy!  His charm, the wink in his eye, that friendly grin, his subtle sense of humor.  Women loved him.  Men loved him.  Children loved him.  He was the kind of guy that you wanted to hang out with, grab a drink with and set your sister up with.  And what kid in the 70’s or 80’s didn’t at least once imagine that Jim Rockford was their Dad?  James Garner was just this cool guy.  He was a tough guy, but a nice guy.  He watched football, raced cars, sued movie studios (and won) and even marched with Martin Luther King!  He was one of the last movie stars which was cool for being macho when you could still get away with it.  For whatever reason stating a hatred for James Garner was fighting words, so I called the guy out.  “How can you possibly hate James Garner?”

James Garner as Bret Maverick, the role that made him a household name. Garner would go on to appear in the forgettable 1994 “Maverick” film featuring Mel Gibson in the role.

“I just do” my surly drunk drinking companion said.  “I hate his smug face.”

“Do you even know who James Garner is? Name one movie that you’ve seen him in.  Name one!” I demanded.

“He was in Maverick” the guy said.

“And where did you see Maverick” I asked.  I highly doubted he had ever seen the classic TV western that made James Garner a household name.  This was a guy who once said that the greatest western he ever saw was Young Guns.  I should have ended our friendship right then and there.

“I saw it in the theaters” he declared.

“The Mel Gibson one?  Shit.  That doesn’t count” I grunted, and I stood up and walked out of the bar.  I had enough of this joker.  I mean, if he had said The Rockford Files, or The Great Escape, or Murphy’s Romance, or…hell….even The Notebook I might have let him go with his own opinion but this guy didn’t even know what he was talking about.  He didn’t know James Garner.  He didn’t know James Garner one bit.

Lobby card for James Garner’s 1984 film “Tank.” Dismissed by Garner himself as having “nothing outstanding about it” the film did manage to hit a chord with one nine year old pop culture addict.

One of the first Hollywood stars to be able to cross over from film to television and back again, the James Garner vehicle had the most impact on my pop culture journey was his 1984 film Tank.  Have you ever seen Tank?  Most people haven’t.  It wasn’t one of his classics.  In fact, in his 2011 autobiography, The Garner Files, Garner wrote of it “Just a workaday movie with nothing outstanding about it.”  Obviously it wasn’t even one of his favorites.  But when I was nine years old, my Mom brought me to see Tank.  With my father working out of town and unable to find a babysitter, she packed me up in the car and brought me to see it, with little explanation about what the film was about.  It was probably the first film that wasn’t aimed at children or family audiences that I had ever seen in theaters, and the basic plot was simple enough for me to comprehend.  James Garner played Sargent Major Zack Carey, a family man who just happens to own his own personal Sherman tank.  When he moves his family to a military base near a small town in Georgia, Carey strikes up a rivalry with the crooked police force while defending a local prostitute.  When the corrupt chief of police gets revenge by setting up Carey’s teenage son as a drug dealer and sends him to a work camp, Carey tries everything in his power to get his son out legally.  But when he realizes that odds are stacked against him he jumps in his tank and goes renegade James Garner style!  There were obvious legal shades of grey in the film, but who was the good guy and who was the bad guy was pretty black and white. James Garner was a man taking things in his own hands.  It was about doing what you had to do to protect the people you love, even if it’s creating a one man unbeatable war against a greater power, and doing it with charm, integrity and a little bit of humor.  I knew one thing – James Garner was the greatest guy ever!  For months afterwards I drew pictures of James Garner driving his Sherman tank!

“James Garner was a man taking things in his own hands. It was about doing what you had to do to protect the people you love, even if it’s creating a one man unbeatable war against a greater power, and doing it with charm, integrity and a little bit of humor.”

Time went by, and I saw a lot of better films, and even a few better films with James Garner in it, and I sort of forgot about Tank like much of the rest of the world.  But one day I was going through bargain bin DVDs at a department store when I found a copy of Tank for five bucks.  “Oh wow,” I thought to myself, “I wonder how this movie held up.”  I brought it home and was preparing myself for disappointment.  You know when you see a beloved film or TV show from your childhood as an adult and your realize how terrible it was?  That’s what I was expecting.  Well imagine my surprise when I fell in love with Tank all over again.  It not only held up, but was just as good as I remember it being when I was nine years old!  Sure, it’ll never be one of James Garner’s most memorable films.  It’s not even my favorite (that’d have to go to The Children’s Hour with Shirley McLain and Audrey Hepburn).  But rewatching Tank I was reminded that James Garner displayed love, loyalty, integrity and strength in his character – four of the values which are the most important to me.  That was the worldwide appeal of James Garner.  He was a man we could all respect.

Never trust a man who doesn’t like James Garner.

So what of my friend who “hated” James Garner?  Well, I’m not shallow enough to end a friendship just because a guy doesn’t like an actor that I happen to admire.  But months later this particular friend did something so asinine that I realized that I needed to just cut this character out of my life and we stopped hanging out.  Friends would sometimes ask why he and I didn’t talk anymore and I would always give them the same explanation: “Never trust a guy that doesn’t like James Garner.”

To this day I still live by those words and I have spoken them many times.  Never trust a man who doesn’t like James Garner.  He was an example of what a good man should be.

One of the strangest success stories in Canadian pop culture history, `The Hilarious House of Frightenstein,`starring Billy Van, was made at CHCH-11 in Hamilton, ON and forty five years later is still an international cult favorite.

When growing up in the 1980’s, you had to get up really early to watch The Hilarious House of Frightenstein.  I mean, you needed to get up before the sun was even up, creep downstairs as quietly as possible so you didn’t wake your parents, and turn the TV on way down low.  You sat real close to the TV, with a bowl of cereal on your lap and a blanket clutched tight just in case you got to creeped out and had to cover your head with it.  But, man, the payoff was really sweet.  There was nothing quite like Frightenstein.  Just the opening title sequence was enough to blow my eight year old mind.  Shot in pinks and purple psychedelic hues, the face of Vincent Price, tinted green, was superimposed over a desolate landscape and crashing lightening as he recited his creepy poem: “Another lovely day begins, for ghosts and ghouls with greenish skin. So close your eyes and you will find that you’ve arrived in Frightenstein. Perhaps the Count will find a way to make his monster work to-day. For if he solves this monster-mania, he can return to Transylvania! So welcome where the sun won’t shine, to the castle of Count Frightenstein!”  And then there was that laugh.  That classic creepy Vincent Price laugh.  Oh man.  It was almost too much to take. My head was already under the blanket. I was completely turned on by tuning into The Hilarious House of Frightenstein.

Strange as it may seem, horror icon Vincent Price came to Canada to film narration scenes for `The Hilarious House of Frightenstein.` Four days of work was spread over 113 episodes. His eerie narration was sometimes a little to intense for kiddie TV, but it was pop culture gold!

But I wasn’t alone.  Possibly the most successful small studio television production in the history of Canadian broadcasting, for over forty years The Hilarious House of Frightenstein has maintained a massive cult following across North America.  It is a television success story as strange and captivating as the colourful characters that inhabit Castle Frightenstein itself.  In 1971 brothers Riff and Mitch Markowitz, producers at CHCH-11 in Hamilton, Ontario, keyed in on a crazy idea.  What about a sketch comedy series for kids featuring the classic Universal Horror monsters?  There’d be a goofy vampire, his Igor type sidekick, a witch, a werewolf and other odd beings that would entertain and, once in a while, teach kids in a zany and offbeat production.  Getting their writer friends together for a feast of wine and spaghetti, the group came up with a story about Count Von Frightenstein, a son of Dracula, who was banished by his father to a castle in rural Canada with his bumbling sidekick Igor where he tried, and failed, each week to bring their Frankenstein type monster, Brucie, to life.  An original idea, the brothers quickly put together a cast featuring the giant sized Fishka Rais as Igor, little person Guy Big as the Mini Count and, the star of the series, Billy Van as pretty much everybody else.  A master comedian and impersonator, Van took on the role of The Count, Grizelda the Witch, the record spinning Wolfman, The Librarian, The Oracle, Bwana Clyde Bailey the explorer, Dr. Pet Vet and a host of other odd ball characters.  But sealing the deal with CHCH-11, which was taking a big risk at producing such an unconventional program, was the addition of horror icon Vincent Price, who acted as host and storyteller,  to the eerie kids show.  Filled with improvisation, psychedelics, rock n’ roll, puppets, scattered adult humor and even a little bit of educational value thrown in, there was nothing like The Hilarious House of Frightenstein before, or ever again.  The series became an instant hit in Canada, and quickly found an audience in the United States.  A small show from a local broadcaster in Canada making syndication in the US is almost never heard of, but Frightenstein’s clever humor and memorable characters made it an instant favorite.

One of the last surviving members of the `Frightenstein`team, producer and screenwriter Mitch Markowitz is holding the torch by meeting fans of the cult series at autograph shows and comic conventions across North America.

Over four decades later The Hilarious House of Frightenstein is still being shown on television across North America, although the majority of the people involved in the show are no longer with us.  But one man, Mitch Markowitz, holds the torch as one of the last surviving members of the Frightenstein team.  Co-creator and producer of the series, Markowitz also appeared on screen as one of the show’s more obscure characters, Super Hippie, and possibly “The Mosquito,” although Markowitz isn’t sue about that.  Working in show business for over four decades, Markowitz has primarily found success as a TV writer, scripting episodes of M.A.S.H., Benson, The Facts of Life, Too Close for Comfort, What’s Happening and Monk.  However, he had probably his biggest success in 1987 when he wrote the screenplay for Good Morning Viet Nam, which wasn’t only one of the biggest films of the decade but earned star Robin Williams an Oscar nomination.  Markowitz followed up with Crazy People, starring Dudley Moore and Darryl Hannah in 1990 which was also successful at the box offices.  But, despite these successes, The Hilarious House of Frightenstein remains to be one of Mitch Markowitz’s favorite projects.  Traveling to autograph shows and comic conventions throughout Canada and the US, Markowitz regular meets with fans of the show, sharing his memories and listening to theirs.

It was at the Hamilton Comic Convention that I had the great pleasure to talk to Mitch Markowitz about his Frightenstein memories.  One of my favorite shows growing up as a youngster, it was amazing how the memories of the series flooded back to me as I had a lively conversation with one of the last men standing who helped build Castle Frightenston.

READ FULL INTERVIEW

This summer comic history is being made when Dick Tracy searches for the long missing Little Orphan Annie in one of the most unexpected comic crossovers of all time!

Last summer, writer Mike Curtis and artist Joe Staton shocked and delighted old time comic buffs when they (kind of) brought the long deceased Moon Maid back to Dick Tracy.  The story won them a Harvey Award, and put Dick Tracy back on the map as one of the best comics being created today.  Well, how do you follow up that sort of success?  Obviously by doing the unthinkable.  This summer there are some familiar faces in Dick Tracy as Curtis, Staton and the rest of Team Tracy sends Tracy on an epic search for a kidnapped little girl in one of the strangest and unexpected comic cross overs of all time.  Dick Tracy is going in search of Little Orphan Annie!

This isn’t just the return of the Annie characters after a four year hiatus.  This is Curtis and Staton’s chance to finish one of the strangest loose ends in comic history.  In 2010, , Tribune Media Service pulled the plug on Annie in the middle of an adventure, ending the eighty six year run in a bleak and unexpected manner.  Annie, who had been kidnapped by a villain called The Butcher of the Balkans, was left an unwilling captive while Daddy Warbucks gave up all hope of ever seeing her again.  The Tribune promised it was the end of the story “for now” but there was little commitment in resolving Annie’s fate.  With the Annie franchise turning ninety years old this past month, and on the heels of a new heavily revamped film coming out this Christmas, Curtis and Staton will be making comic history by using the casts of both Dick Tracy and Annie to help find the eternally optimistic little girl, and revive a classic dormant property.  It’s something for old time comic strip lovers to cheer about.  The sun might just come up tomorrow after all.

The leaders of “Team Tracy, ” writer Mike Curtis and artist Joe Staton. Dick Tracy is in a new golden age, winning the 2013 Harvey Award for Best Syndicated Strip.

Last year Mike Curtis and I did a lengthy interview about the Moon Maid saga and the origins of his and Joe Staton’s run on Dick Tracy Mike and I have stayed in touch ever since and the two of us have become good friends.  For the latest story Mike decided to bring Joe into the conversation.  Unfortunately, our talk was faced with more technical problems that even Diet Smith couldn’t fix out all the bugs.  But through determination and a sense of humor, we managed to create a lively discussion about Dick Tracy, Annie and things to come.

Sam Tweedle:  It’s really great to have you two guys together.  Mike and I have spoken many times, but I’ve looked at a lot of your work while I was growing up Joe.  I was a DC kid and I can remember your work at DC Comics.

The key cast of Dick Tracy drawn by Joe Staton – Dick Tracy, Sam Catchem, Chief Patton and Liz Grove.

Joe Staton:  You’ve seen a lot of it then.

Sam:  We featured a story on the Moon Maid storyline last year.  Let’s bring things up to date with your team winning the Harvey Award last year for Best Syndicated Strip.  How has that changed things for you guys and Dick Tracy in general?

Joe:  It hasn’t really changed things too much.  Some people will notice and congratulate us.  That’s about it.

Mike Curtis: We did get that big New York Times article.

Sam:  Well this was the first time that an adventure strip has won the award.

Mike:  It is.

Joe:  It’s certainly the first time a strip this old has won it.

Sam:  I really enjoyed your last storyline with Tabby Angus and his racehorses.  I noticed you had a lot of fun naming the race horses.  A lot of Easter Eggs for old comic fans.   Mike, how much reception do you get from readers by dropping in Easter Eggs like that?  Is it appreciated, or are the references often too obscure for today’s reader?

Mike:  We get a lot of good feedback. People notice them.

Sam:  Since you guys took over Dick Tracy you’ve created a lot of great original characters in the Chester Gould tradition.  Do you design the characters together?

A gallery of villains created by Mike Curtis and Joe Staton: Hot Rize, Abnar Kadavar, Melies and Venus, Rikki Mortis and Silver and Sprocket Nitrate.

Joe:  The way it works is that sometimes Mike has a very definite idea of what they look like, so he’ll sketch out an idea and I’ll elaborate that.  Sometimes he just has a name and I’ll come up with something based on the story.

Sam:  What characters have you designed Mike, and who have you designed Joe?

Joe:  Right off the bat….what was the little red headed girl, Mike?

Mike:  Hot Rize!

Joe:  Yeah.  Hot Rize.  Mike designed her right off the bat.  One that I did was Abner Kadaver.  I pretty much did him.  Mike had a pretty well worked a design on Tabby Angus.

Mike:  I had a different idea for Mêlies but you redesigned him.

Joe:  Yeah.  I pretty much based him on the shot from the movie [A Trip to the Moon].  Sometimes when we can’t nail it down sometimes Shelley Pleger will take over.  Shelly designed Rikki Mortis.

Sam:  I have a crush on her.

Joe:  Yeah.  I had turned in three sketches of her and let them pick what they wanted, and they settled on the Goth look, but when Shelley saw it she said “This will never work.  This is too complicated.”  So she started all over.  The design is pretty much hers. I keep Shelley’s sketch of Rikki Mortis on my wall for inspiration.

Sam:  Two other recent villains that really grew on me were the Nitrates.  They were so deliciously weird.

Joe Staton: “Blackjack is my favorite character to draw so far. I like those big googly eyes. He’s over the top with his characterization.”

Joe:  I pretty much went with Mike’s design for Silver, but when I was working for Sprocket she just got a little stranger.

Sam:  I know both of you are long time Dick Tracy fans from when you were kids.  Mike and I spoke in our past interview about his favorite Tracy characters to work with.  Who are some of yours Joe?

Joe:  I really enjoyed Sprocket and Blackjack.  Blackjack is my favorite character to draw so far.  I like those big googly eyes.  He’s over the top with his characterization.  I’ve certainly enjoyed drawing Moon Maid.  We are committed to keeping Flat Top dead, so I only get to draw him in the occasional flashback, but I enjoy drawing the entire Top family.

Sam:  Why are you keeping Flat Top dead?

Joe:  I think there are certain points in history that shouldn’t be changed.  I think Flat Top should stay dead.

Sam:  So it’d be like bringing back Uncle Ben in Spider-Man.

Joe Staton: “I think there are certain points in history that shouldn’t be changed. I think Flat Top should stay dead.”

Joe:  Right.  You should not bring back Uncle Ben.  We brought back a lot of characters.  B.B. Eyes cheated death.  But he’s not as much of an awesome character as Flat Top.  Some dead characters have to stay dead.

Mike:  Flat Top is dead and buried, basically.  Shaky is my favorite.  I’d love to bring him back but we can’t because the last time we saw him he was a skeleton.

Sam:  Now over the past few months I have gone on record as saying that, in my opinion, the search for Annie is the comic event of the summer.  You guys have been working a lot of classic comic characters in the strip which has been a lot of fun, but this is going to be something far more involved.  How long did it take you to get the permission to do this story?

Mike:  We wanted to do this since we got [Dick Tracy] but we didn’t want to do it as a one off.  When we first did cross overs we’d only have the characters for one day.

“Steve Canyon’s” Hot Shot Charlie made his “Dick Tracy” debut in 2012. Other cross over guest stars have included Walt Wallet, Popeye and Mary Perkins.

Joe:  Right.  We had Hot Shot Charlie for just a panel or two, but Annie needed more.

Mike:  Very much so.

Sam:  How about giving us a recap for the people who don’t know.  How did Annie end?

Mike:  Annie had been kidnapped by the Butcher of the Balkans, but he said he would not kill her but she would travel with him from now on.  Daddy Warbucks had resigned himself to the fact that he would never find Annie alive.  I know.  That doesn’t sound like Warbucks to me either.

Sam:  Will the Butcher of the Balkans appear in your story?

Joe:  Yes.

Sam:  Is he the main villain?

Mike:  No.

When “Annie” was discontinued in 2010 she was left as a captive of The Butcher of the Balkans. The story was never finished, until now

Sam:  Is it a new villain or someone we’ve seen before.

Mike: Yes.

Joe:  All of above. (Laughs)

Sam:  What a weird weird ending.

Mike:  I know.  It was a strange ending.

Sam:  But this is a great story opportunity for you guys.  So beyond the Dick Tracy characters, who are the characters you’ll be using in this story?

Mike:  Annie, Daddy Warbucks, Punjab, the Asp.  The Great Am is in there.  Also characters from the radio show are in it.  Ma and Pa Silo are in it.  You can’t get too much earlier than that.

Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks, Punjab and The Asp as drawn by Joe Staton.

Joe:  And some other cross over characters will be appearing also.

Sam:  Where is Sandy in all of this?

Mike:  I had to do research to find out where Sandy was.  Warbucks has him.  He will show up in this

Sam:  One of my favorite Annie characters from the early days of the strip was Annie’s Emily Marie doll.  Will she be in it?

Mike:  I’m not sure what happened to her.  I’ve got a book where it references Emily Marie but Annie says that she was stolen.  I’ve been trying to find out what happened to her.  Once I find out what happened to her I plan to reference her.

Sam:  What kind of reaction have you gotten from the public about the upcoming storyline?

Joe:  People are realizing that this is the first time that this kind of thing has happened.

Sam:  Was there any licensing problems in order for you to be able to do a story with Annie for so long?

Joe:  Well the Tribute owns it all, so it’s all “in-house.”  Once we got the go ahead from them then we were fine.

The casts of Dick Tracy and Little Orphan Annie come together.

Sam:  But it’s interesting what you guys have been doing, showing that all of the characters that the Tribune owns are in the same universes.  That’s sort of a Marvel or DC concept but hasn’t been played very often in the newspaper strips.

Joe:  Some of the King Features characters have done small cross overs.

Mike:  The Phantom and Mandrake have had crossovers.

Joe:  We’ve certainly done the most of it though.

Sam:  How long is your Annie story going to last?

Mike:  Five months.

Classic “Annie” character The Great Am gets involved in the mystery.

Sam:  And it’s all written?

Mike:  Not every little bit.

Joe:  There are still some things that we are waiting to see how it ends up.

Mike:  Now I’ll give you a clue that I’m not giving anyone else.  Ready?

Sam:  Okay.

Mike:  1944.

Sam:  Is that it?

Mike:  That’s it.  It’ll make sense later.

Sam:  Okay then.  The art style between Dick Tracy and Annie is so different, especially with the Annie characters lacking eyeballs.  Over the last while characters without eyeballs have been added to almost prepare readers for the design change.  As an artist Joe, how do you merge the two styles?   Is it easy?

Joe Staton: “It’s really difficult to draw characters without eyeballs. It’s hard to figure out where to place their eyes. Things that I normally do with characters looking over their shoulders or looking to the side can’t be done. It’s a whole new set of problems.”

Joe:  It’s really difficult to draw characters without eyeballs.  It’s hard to figure out where to place their eyes.  Things that I normally do with characters looking over their shoulders or looking to the side can’t be done.  It’s a whole new set of problems.  When we do the crossover I try to pick up on the style of the artist, and I thought the hardest would be Leonard Starr’s Mary Perkins, because Leonard Starr can really draw.  It’s hard to walk in those shoes.  But its turning out that Annie is harder to draw than Mary Perkins, because Harold Grey couldn’t really draw at all so there weren’t any rules.  It’s hard to figure out what he was doing.

Sam:  So is it safe to say that you are not a fan of Grey’s art?

Joe:  Well, he made images but I don’t think you could say he could draw.

Annie and Sandy as drawn by creator Harold Gray – Mike Curits: “Chester Gould and Harold Grey were cartoonists and writers. They were not necessarily artists.”

Mike:  Chester Gould and Harold Grey were cartoonists and writers.  They were not necessarily artists.  So that is the challenge for Joe.

Joe:  Shelley is also helping me figure out how to draw Annie, figuring out a girl of Annie’s size and age and just trying to help me nail down the look.

Sam:  How old would you say Annie is?

Joe:  I’m shooting for twelve.  Just back from being a teen.

Sam:  So what happens to Annie after the storyline completes.  Are you going to send her on her way or will we see more of her?

Joe:  She’s going to get together with Moon Maid and go into business.  (Laughs)

Mike:  We can’t give away the ending.

Sam:  Is it too far in the future to talk about 2015?

Annie and Sandy as drawn by Joe Staton – Joe Staton: “Shelly (Pleger) Shelley is also helping me figure out how to draw Annie, figuring out a girl of Annie’s size and age and just trying to help me nail down the look.”

Mike:  We’re planning that out now.  You know how I write, so basically all stories may be revised when my pen hits the paper.  But we are already making tentative plans for plot line for the next year.  The Nitrates will be back.  The Blackhearts are back next year.  Do you know who Phillip J. Reilly is?  He’s an author who writes about horror movies that are never made.  Apparently he has access to a lot of the universal files.  So there is a book about Dracula vs. The Wolfman, which was to be a color film featuring Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney Jr.  Well I contacted him because if he is interested in rare horror films, that’s the kind of thing that Rikki Mortis would get as a present to Abner Kadaver.  Phillip J. Reilly will be appearing as himself.

Sam:  Was there any pressure from the syndicate to work in aspects of the upcoming Annie film, such as replacing Daddy Warbucks with Benjamin Stacks, or to change certain character’s ethnicity?

Joe:  The new film is off limits to us, which is fine.  We’re working on what’s gone before.

Sam: Now this is just a guess about what happens, but are you going to do a Patty Hearst type thing with Annie?

Joe: (Laughs)

Mike: I’m kind of taken aback by the question.

Joe:  I don’t know what that’d entail.  Annie has joined a gang of bank robbers?  You’ll have to see.

I’ve said it on numerous occasions, and I’ll say it once again.   Mike Curtis and Joe Staton’s Dick Tracy is the best comic being produced today.  Its colorful characters, wild plots, masterful storytelling, brisk and classic art and attention to both detail and history makes it a joy to read for both old and new readers.  While I’ve become disenchanted on some of the editorial directions of some of my favorite comic companies, Dick Tracy reminds me daily just why I love the medium of comics.  But the best thing about Dick Tracy is the fact that it is absolutely free.  You can read Dick Tracy every day at http://www.gocomics.com/dicktracy.  It truly is the best of the best in comics today.  Dick Tracy’s search for Annie has just begun so it’s not too late to jump on board!

REMEMBERS

ATHENA BAUMEISTER

1997 – 2014

Aspiring actress/writer/director Athena Baumeister had just started to get attention on the pop culture radar. She sadly passed away on April 14th, cutting short a career that was just starting to take shape.

This is the kind of tribute that should never have to be written.

In late 2012 I interviewed a young actress named Athena Baumeister.  I did it as a favor for a contact.  The sort of interviews that I have to do once in a while in order to get to a desired celebrity.  Sometimes it’s a big pain in the ass, but often I find these things enjoyable it helps put upcoming faces on my cultural radar.  Well I was really impressed with Athena.  Having just turned fifteen years old, Athena was doing press for her first starring role in a feature length independent film called Monster and Me.  I hadn’t seen much of her work, but Athena gave me a lot to work with.  She really wasn’t like most teenage girls trying to get into show business. I was impressed by her dedication to her work, her ambitious future goals, her desire to understand all aspects of the art of filmmaking, not to mention her beauty and her charm.  It was a short interview due to the fact that Athena didn’t have the years of experience that most people I interview have, but  when I got off the phone I said to her “You are a very talented girl, you are a very smart girl and you are a very pretty girl.  I think you’re going to have a big future in show business.”  In the article that followed I closed it by stating “Baumeister is the future of pop culture, and someone that we should keep our eyes on.”  However, Athena Baumeister quickly dropped off of my radar as fast as she appeared.  Not completely forgotten, but she was obviously still looking for that breakout project that would make her a household name.

Last night, upon chance, I found out the saddest news.  On April 14, 2014 Athena Baumeister died at the age of 16.  There have been little details released about her death, and her official web-site lays dormant, untouched since the last time I visited it years ago.  The only cause of death given by the few sources I could find was that it was due to “an illness.”  A bright girl with great ambitions and a promising career, the world never got to truly know Athena Baumeister, and we lost a talent that never reached its true potential.

“A lot of people say “I want to be famous” or “I want to be a celebrity.” They don’t want to work hard. They just want to be famous. Never in my life have I ever been like that. I wanted to be an actress.”

When Athena’s agent first contacted me I was impressed that while she was only fifteen years old, Athena had already written and directed two award winning short films, had appeared in a number of shorts and had worked on a web-series.  Starting her acting career at the age of eight, Athena quickly moved from in front of the camera to the other side where she started writing and directing short subjects at the age of twelve.  Her first film, a little piece called Who’s Suffering More, would win a prize at the esteemed Providence Children’s Film Festival.  Her next film, Carolyn’s Crush, which she made at age thirteen, would win the top award at the Kids and Teen Filmmaker Festival.  In a world where kids watch people become stars via realtiy shows and YouTube, I was impressed by Athena’s work ethic, and how she wanted to learn all aspects of film making from writing to producing to directing.  When I asked about her work ethics Athena wisely stated “A lot of people say “I want to be famous” or “I want to be a celebrity.”  They don’t want to work hard.  They just want to be famous.  Never in my life have I ever been like that.  I wanted to be an actress.”  When her family moved to Burbank so that Athena could focus on her career, she spoke about the grueling competition for roles, and about walking into casting calls where there would be thirty or forty girls that looked like her.  However, she still had ambitions to continue to write and direct.  Athena said to me “’I’ve been writing something.  I keep having to stop because I’ve been so busy with acting, but I definitely want to write and direct something soon.” She also spoke of going to USB or NYU for film school after she graduated from high school.  Athena wasn’t like most girls with stars in her eyes.  She had true ambition.

In 2013 Athena Baumeister gained attention and praise for her role as the Grim Reaper’s daughter in Peter Duke’s short film “Little Reaper.”

Although her early childhood work was comedic in nature, Athena had this quality which leant will to horror films, and for whatever reason it was the horror industry that came knocking on her door.  Perhaps that’s just the nature of independent film making today.  Although fresh faced and beautiful, with one of the most adorable smiles ever seen, Athena had a quality which could be turned creepy.  There was something in her large eyes that pierced through the soul.  She just had that certain look.  When I asked her about the juxtaposition of horror and comedy Athena said “I think if I did all comedy or if I did all dark stuff I wouldn’t like it.  I want to have variety.”  But by appearing in these horror shorts, Athena managed to gain the attention of a number of horror writers and bloggers who, charmed like me, agreed that she had the potential to be a future horror icon.

Ironically, Athena’s final starring role would be playing the daughter of the Grim Reaper in a wonderful 2013  short by Peter Dukes called Little Reaper.  With her face painted in a New Orleans death mask, Athena played a pouty and rebellious, yet adorable, spirit of death who had no desire to enter her father’s line of work.  Little Reaper was an incredible platform for Athena, which allowed her to straddle the fine line between comedy and horror and gave a glimpse of the potential star she could have been.  Adorable, expressive, funny and creepy, Athena’s brought a playful charm to the role, and was the driving force of making the short film memorable.  Little Reaper has become Athena’s bittersweet legacy.

A brilliant and ambitious young woman, the loss of Athena Baumeister is tragic because the world never got to know her, and never watched her reach her full potential.

Athena Baumesiter’s final film, Seventy-Nine, is due to be released later this year.  One of her few full length features, Athena will play a supporting character named Hailey Dagger.  Seventy-Nine would have been Athena’s first film to be released nationally.

Athena Baumeister left only a small body of work during her life without ever finding the stardom that she deserved.  She really had the potential to be the future of pop culture.  So many young performers make the pop culture radar who lacked the talent and ambition of Athena, but Athena’s life ended before the world got to truly know who she was.  This is the true tragedy of Athena Baumeister.  I never really knew her and her short life and career leaves little for me to say, but I remember her energy, her charm and her brilliance.  I liked Athena Baumesiter and I gave her the highest of praises that I only reserve for few people.  The loss of Athena Baumeister has shocked me and has broken my heart.  Her death is one of the worst kinds of deaths of all.  She left us before we got to see what she really could have done.  The world may never know what they lost, but those who knew Athena and her work will always feel a great sadness in losing her.

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Blues band Canned Heat created a unique niche during the psychedelic era of the 60′s with international hits “Goin’ Up the Country” and “On the Road Again.”

At the end of the 1960’s there wasn’t another group like Canned Heat.  They were distinctly different from everything else on possibly the most exciting musical landscape in the history of rock n’ roll.  A combination of old classic blunes with a country flair, Canned Heat shared the stage with some of the biggest names in music history, including The Who, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin.  However, they managed to find a certain popularity without compromising their unique musical style and their love for classic American blues.

Formed in 1965 by blues enthusiasts Bob “The Bear” Hite and Alan “Blind Owl” Wilson, Canned Heat reimagined classic blues numbers from the 20’s and 30’s for the hippie generation.  Utilizing modern electrical instruments combined with Wilson’s unique falsetto voice and pulsating harmonica, Canned Heat was earthy instead of psychedelic and quickly became a favorite at music festivals during the later half of the 60’s, including key appearances at two of the eras most important festivals – Monterey Pop and Woodstock.  In 1968 the group scored two Billboard Top 20 hits with Going Up the Country and On the Road Again.  Uniquely different from anything that has ever been heard on Top 20 radio, a Canned Heat song was distinctly identifiable, and their songs were considered to be anthems of the Woodstock generation.

One of the surviving members of Canned Heat’s classic line-up, bassist Larry “the Mole” Taylor currently headlines the current group as they continue to bring the blues to venues and festivals across North America.

However, time hasn’t been kind to Canned Heat.  In 1970, at the height of their popularity, Alan Wilson was found dead of a drug overdose at age 27.  With his irreplaceable voice gone forever, Canned Heat regrouped and continued to create music, although their identifiable sound was silenced.  Struggling through the 70’s, the band’s popular front man, The Bear, also died of a drug overdose in 1980.  Yet, despite the major losses of the Canned Heat’s most famous members, members of the group have reformed in various incarnations during the years keeping the music and tradition of Canned Heat alive.

As one of the surviving members of the band’s classic line-up from the late 1960’s, bassist Larry “The Mole” Taylor has become Canned Heat’s current front man.  Starting his career in the early 60’s as a member of the surf band The Gamblers, Taylor joined up with Bobby Hart and became a popular session musician on many of Hart’s projects, including playing bass on many of The Monkees early recordings.  It 1967 Taylor was invited to join Canned Heat just before they took off to international stardom and stayed with the group through their peak years.  Leaving the group in 1970, Taylor has stayed present on the blues scene as one of the country’s leading blues bassists and has worked with The Hollywood Fats Band, The Sugarcane Harris Band and Tom Waits.  Taylor returned to Canned Heat in 2003 where he currently tours alongside former Canned Heat members Fito de la Parra, Harvey “The Snake” Mandel and Dale Spalding.

A man who loves music, Larry Taylor has a unique, yet educated, opinion on the history of popular music.  While speeding down the highway to his next gig, I had the opportunity to talk to Taylor about his career and the history of Canned Heat.  Although plagued with reception problems, Larry shared some of his stories with me about his career as a blues musician.

 READ FULL INTERVIEW

Los Angeles based film maker Ansel Faraj has made more films by the age of twenty five then many established directors make in a life time, solidly placing him on the modern cult film landscape.

I first heard of Ansel Faraj during an interview with a actor Jerry Lacy.  Having just finished portraying the title character in Faraj’s film Doctor Mabuse, Lacy called Faraj “a young genius” and said “the kid is going to be very very big.”  Well in the time since that interview it seems that Lacy may not be far off of his mark.  Still in his early twenties writer/director Ansel Faraj has not only made more films than some directors make in a lifetime, but he has created a solid audience and become one of the most exciting independent cult film directors currently on the movie making landscape.

Making his first film at age six, Faraj started seriously pursuing filmmaking as a teenager when he released his first short, The Loneliness Trilogy, in 2008.  As his knowledge of film making and storytelling grew, so did the scope of his productions, and slowly Faraj has been able to pull in cult film and television actors into his productions.  It would just be a matter of time before Faraj and I would cross paths because the two of us have a similar love for the 1960’s serial Dark Shadows.  With the influence of the gothic soap opera strongly evident in his work, in 2013 Faraj assembled three of the program’s key performers; Jerry Lacy, Kathryn Leigh Scott and Lara Parker, for his retooling of the long dormant pulp franchise Doctor Mabuse.  Although it had only a modest release, Doctor Mabuse created a buzz amongst both horror and Dark Shadows fans, receiving national attention, and put Faraj solidly on the map.  This month Faraj is releasing the sequel to the film, Doctor Mabuse: Etiopomar, where he’ll be bringing many of the actors from the first film back, and bringing in another Dark Shadows alumnist, Christopher Pennock.  Furthermore, Faraj and Pennock have partnered up on a gothic on-line series of short films titled Theatre Fantastique, featuring stories by Edgar Allen Poe and other gotic literature icons.

One of the busiest young directors today, Faraj has a mind that is always working and moving, allowing him to create an impressive body of work via Hollinsworth Productions.  I was pleased to sit down and talk to Ansel about his career as a filmmaker, and to discuss his current and upcoming projects.

In 2013 Ansel Faraj caught the attention of the horror industry when he breathed new life into the dormant pulp character Doctor Mabuse and reassembled three of “Dark Shadows” key performers; Jerry Lacy, Kathryn Leigh Scott and Lara Parker, in “Dr. Mabuse.”

Sam Tweedle:  One thing you and I have in common is that we are both Dark Shadows fans, but we are from the generation that didn’t watch it “after school” when we were kids.  Dark Shadows has obviously played an important role in your films.  How did you get exposed to it originally?

Ansel  Faraj: My Mom was an original Dark Shadows fan.  When it originally aired, she was watching it.  In the early 90’s, when I came along, she had the first book that Katheryn Leigh Scott put out, My Scrapbook Memories of Dark Shadows, and as a little kid you get into your parents stuff and I found the book and I was looking at these images of the show.  It just clicked with me.  I was always kind of into the horror genre.  Phantom of the Opera got me [interested in] entertainment because my parents took me to see the play [when I was very young].  I was fascinated with how they did it, and wondered if could I do the same thing.  So I saw that, and then Dark Shadows came along.  My mother started renting the [Dark Shadows] video tapes and I was hooked at a young age.  I think House of Dark Shadows and Night of Dark Shadows have had a bigger impact on me then the TV show.  So it has always been there in my pool of influences.

Sam:  So when did you start making films?

Ansel:  Well when I was six years old I decided I wanted to make movies.  I said I wanted to be a director.  So I’ve been making stuff since then, first on VHS with action figures and legos, and then coercing my school friends to come and act.

Sam:  How many movies have you made to date?

Ansel:  Out of the work that I would show publicly, and not be embarrassed of, twenty three or twenty four films, starting back in 2006.

Sam:  Now you’ve been making gaining a lot of publicity with your Doctor Mabuse series.  Doctor Mabuse is sort of an obscure character.  Tell me a bit about the character and his history.

Rudolf Klein-Rogge as Doctor Mabuse in Fritz Lang’s original 1922 Mabuse film “Doctor Mabuse: The Gambler”: “As a teenager I saw the second film, The Testament of Doctor Mabuse, and I was very intrigued by this guy who could do whatever he set his mind to.  Add the hypnotism and the master of disguise and you got me right there.  That’s fun to me.”

Ansel:  Doctor Mabuse was a character created by Norbert Jacques back in the early 1920’s.  He was basically a gambler, hypnotist and a master of disguise.  In Germany, there was something called the raffke, who were newly rich war profiteers, and he was that type of a character.  He was using all of his gifts to finance his own world in the jungles of South America which was to be a utopian society.  Fritz Lang did a film about him, and then a trilogy, where he reconfigured the character to his own vision, and to reflect what was going on at the time {in Germany] in each film.  For instance, in   the second film Doctor Mabuse is very much a Hitler type figure, and in the third film he is used as a metaphor for the cold war and the Soviet spies.  As a teenager I saw the second film, The Testament of Doctor Mabuse, and I was very intrigued by this guy who could do whatever he set his mind to.  Add the hypnotism and the master of disguise and you got me right there.  That’s fun to me.  I thought that I would love to do a character like that.  So he was in the back of my head and one day the idea for the film came to me.  I took the character and took him apart.  I took what I liked about him, and then reshaped and remolded my own interpretation of Mabuse and wanted to tell a story about him.

Sam:   What was it about Jerry Lacy which made you cast him as Doctor Mabuse, and how did you get him involved in the first film?

Famous for his portrayal of the villainous Reverend Trask on “Dark Shadows,” actor Jerry Lacy portrays Ansel Faraj’s Doctor Mabuse:”When I was writing the actual script, I kept hearing his Reverend Trask voice in my head saying the lines.  I thought “Wow.  Jerry Lacy would be really cool.”  I was seventeen or eighteen at the time, so I thought that there was no way it could happen.”

Ansel:  When I was writing the actual script, I kept hearing his Reverend Trask voice in my head saying the lines.  I thought “Wow.  Jerry Lacy would be really cool.”  I was seventeen or eighteen at the time, so I thought that there was no way it could happen.  It would be a pipe dream.  [After a failed attempt to film it earlier], another opportunity came to make it and I felt confident enough as a filmmaker to pursue bigger names.  Why not?  All they could say was no.  So I went after Jerry.  I actually contacted him through his facebook page, but I didn’t hear from him.  Then, a month later, I got an e-mail from him saying “I rarely check my facebook page but I saw this message and if you’re still making this thing I’m interested.  Send me the script.”  So I was thrilled and he gave me his number and I called him and we talked, and that was terrifying, and I sent him the script and he was taken aback because, he told me, that he thought it would be ten or fifteen pages and it was over a hundred pages.  But he liked the script, and he liked my vision for the film so he postponed his planned vacation to make the movie, and I am so glad that he did that.

Sam:  But you went a step further and got Kathryn Leigh Scott and Lara Parker as well!  You really tapped into Dark Shadows fandom in a big way.

Ansel:  I was working at getting them at the same time without any of the parties knowing I was trying to get them all together.  I actually got Kathryn first, before I even got Jerry.  She didn’t know I was going after Jerry until very shortly before the first read through.  I had gotten Kathryn’s contact and sent her the script.  She helped me to get Lara Parker on board.  I had no way to contact her and Kathryn did convince her to do it, so I have to thank her for that.

Sam:  Working with three of the standout stars of Dark Shadows must have been a rush for you.

Ansel Faraj with “Dark Shadows” stars Kathryn Leigh Scott and Lara Parker, who both appeared in his 2013 film “Doctor Mabuse.”: “I actually got Kathryn first, before I even got Jerry… She helped me to get Lara Parker on board. “

Ansel:  Yeah.  It was pretty cool.  A bit harrowing at first.  Not from the Dark Shadows aspect, but from their other body of work.  I said to them “I’m a fan of Dark Shadows, but I want to work with you as actors because I respect your work as actors.”  Knowing Jerry had worked with Woody Allen in Play it Again Sam, and here I am directing Jerry, was a little surreal moment for me.  But working with them was interesting, because you had a lot of time to discuss the characters and collaborate on their previous lives and back stories.  That was a nice process.  But I was still pretty nervous directing.  I was twenty and making this movie, and we were working with very little money entirely on a blue screen, which was a very new thing for them.  The way we shot the film is that there is nothing at all.  It’s just a very big blue screen.  There were very little props, no scenery and so you have to imagine everything, which they had never done before.  So everybody was nervous on their own end, but you find a groove and the work gets done.

Sam:  What was the reception like for Dcoctor Mabuse?  I assume it was positive enough for a sequel.

Ansel Faraj’s second Mabuse film, “Doctor Mabuse: Etiopomar” will be released May 2014 and reunites Jerry Lacy and Lara Parker with former “Dark Shadows” cast mate Christopher Pennock: “It’s a very different film from the first one.  The first film was very much about “Who is Doctor Mabuse?”  The second one is about how he affects everyone else.”

Ansel:  Well the second film had been planned in conjunction to the first film.  I had told a couple of the actors so that they would come back.  I said “If you say yes to this, you’ll be saying yes to another film.”  But the premier was really exciting.  I had never experienced anything like that.  We premiered in San Diego on Coronado Island in a newly restored movie palace.  It was really thrilling when the car comes along and there is a line around the block of people to come and see your movie.  It was the best film school graduation experience that I could get.  It was really great.  Nobody knew what to expect from the film.  They only knew that it was this movie with Jerry, Kathryn and Lara and when it was over they were pretty thrilled.  It was just a great overall.  It played over two weekends in Los Angeles, and it was pretty fantastic.

Sam:  What can you tell me about Doctor Mabuse: Etiopomar?

Ansel:  It’s a very different film from the first one.  The first film was very much about “Who is Doctor Mabuse?”  The second one is about how he affects everyone else.  It’s much more expansive and Robert Altman-esque fantasy/thriller.  There are multiple characters and storylines that are all converging.  It’s a much more intricately plotted story.  We have Chris Pennock playing the new villain.  It was a very stressful situation, but a very successful one.  In the first one there was no expectation and nobody knew what they got themselves into, but for this one the movie had played and everyone showed up ready to attack the material in the best way possible. It was a much smoother set and a very exhilarating experience.  Very exciting.  Very exhausting, but I think it’s one of the best things I’ve ever made.  Very rewarding.

Sam:  Is there any plans for a third Mabuse film?

Ansel:  Well, I won’t say no, but I wouldn’t rule anything out at this time.

In February 2014 Ansel Faraj and Christopher Pennock premiered “The Madness of Roderick Usher,” the first episode of an on-line series of short films under the banner “Theatre Fantastique”: “We are doing two Edgar Allen Poe tales, and two originals, and then the fifth one is an adaptation of another genre classic.  We just finished filming the second episode, A Descent into A Malestrom, and next month we are filming the next two episodes.”

Sam:  Let’s talk about your anthology web-series Theatre Fantastique!  You’ve mentioned Thriller and The Twilight Zone as inspirations.  You are doing this with, of course another Dark Shadows alumnist, who you mentioned is in Doctor Mabuse: Etiopomar, Christopher Pennock.  Did you connect with Christopher after the success of Doctor Mabuse?

Ansel:  Actually, I offered him a part in the first film but he had to turn it down because of scheduling, but he told me to keep him in mind and I said “of course.”  So when the script had been finalized and I sent it to him he said he’d be in it.  So we were sort of talking before the first film was made.  But as we were doing Doctor. Mabuse: Etiopomar I said “Hey Chris.  I’d really like to do an Edgar Allen Poe movie and I’d like to do House of Usher.”  Chris said “Yeah!  Let’s do that!”  We were talking about doing it as a feature, but it didn’t work out.  I got busy doing the special features on the Doctor Mabuse DVD and my science fiction film,  The Rising Light,  was coming out in December.  Our schedules were not aligned.  So I said to Chris “Let’s do this as a short” and we did The Madness of Roderick Usher.  Then I pitched “Let’s do more of these.  This is pretty fun” and it evolved into Theater Fantastique.  We are doing vie short films which will be debuting on-line over the year.  We are doing two Edgar Allen Poe tales, and two originals, and then the fifth one is an adaptation of another genre classic.  We just finished filming the second episode, A Descent into a Malestrom, and next month we are filming the next two episodes.

Sam:  Now you’re in your early twenties and you have a body of work of over twenty films already.  This is obviously going to keep expanding.  You’ve already made more movies than some people do in a lifetime.  What’s your dream project?  Who are some of the people you would like to work with?

Ansel:  There are so many films that I would love to work, none of which I will mention.  I’d love to make a Batman movie.  I have a story in my mind that I’d love to do.  I don’t know about who I’d love to work with.  There are so many great actors and writers and I can’t even fathom it.  Really, with me, it’s who would be great to work with on a project.  That’s a more complicated question.

Sam:  It’s very inspirational to hear how you are just taking this thing and running with it.  Doing what you love to do.  I wish there were more stories of creative people doing what you are doing.

Ansel:  Well, if you get the opportunity grab it and don’t let go.  I’ve been training my whole life for the opportunity that I was given with Doctor Mabuse and getting to work with Jerry, Kathryn and Lara and being able to create a platform for myself.  As a young filmmaker you very rarely get noticed.  To make something and know you’re going to have an audience for it, and then build an audience, it becomes a great opportunity for an independent film maker.  I’m not letting go of my opportunity and letting it build into as big as a platform that I can.

Just like Jerry Lacy, I predict that Ansel Faraj is going to very very big.  Remember his name, and keep an eye out for his films at film festivals and horror conventions.  For more information on Ansel’s projects visit the Hollinsworth Productions web-site at http://www.hollinsworthproductions.com/ .

 

J

I like talking with Gary Lockwood.  He’s one of those “guy’s guys” who can shoot the breeze and talk a blue streak.  Personable, smart and straightforward, Gary is full of great stories about breaking heads and breaking hearts throughout Hollywood during his days as one of the tinsel town’s most notorious rogues.

One of the few actors during the 1960s who managed to go back and forth from television to movies and back, he worked with some of the biggest actors and directors, and romanced some of Hollywood’s prettiest starlets. Gary was livin’, drinkin’, fightin’, lovin’ and cussin’ while looking for his next hustle, and he loved every second of it.

Originally from Van Nuys, California, Lockwood first came to Los Angeles on a football scholarship to play quarterback for the UCLA Bruins, and study English.  But as a guy that didn’t always adjust well to authority, and liked to make his own rules, Lockwood eventually dropped out of the program and sought his own fortune as a Hollywood stuntman. It was while working as a stand-in for Anthony Perkins that Lockwood got his first on-screen exposure as a Russian basketball star in the 1960 film, Tall Story. Relocating briefly to New York to study acting on stage, Lockwood was spotted by famed director Elia Kazan, who cast him in the supporting actor role of Allen “Toots” Tuttle in the controversial 1961 film Splendor in the Grass alongside Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood. Splendor in the Grass would win the Oscar for Best Screenplay and Lockwood became hailed as one of the future stars of Hollywood.  Throughout the decade Lockwood would act alongside Elvis Presley, James Stewart, Henry Fonda, Basil Rathbone, Ann-Margret, and Jack Palance, as he made a reputation of being one of the era’s most versatile actors.

However, what made Gary unique is that at the same time as he was becoming a successful big screen actor, he made an almost immediate transition to television, during an era where the two mediums were still considered exclusive of each other. In 1961, Gary was cast in the short-lived ABC drama, Follow the Sun, as Eric Jason, a “researcher” who worked for two adventurous reporters, played by Brett Halsey and Barry Coe. Follow the Sun wrapped up in 1962, but a year later Gary was cast in his own series as William T. “Bill” Rice in the NBC military drama, The Lieutenant which was created by a first-time television producer named Gene Roddenberry. Although it was a favorite of critics and considered one of the best dramas of the year, Roddenberry wrapped up The Lieutenant after a single season in order to work on a new project he had brewing, called Star Trek. Casting a number of former Lieutenant guest stars in the series, including Leonard Nimoy and Nichelle Nichols, Rodenberry also cast Gary Lockwood in a pivotal role in Star Trek’s second unaired pilot Where No Man Has Gone Before.

But much bigger sci-fi fame was to follow Gary when he was cast in one of the most iconic fantasy films of all time, and one of the most spectacular films of the decade.  In 1968, Gary played Dr. Frank Poole in Stanley Kubrick’s film epic, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Battling the  deranged super computer HAL opposite Keir Dullea, audiences would never forget Gary’s horrifying death as he floated away through space. One of the most important films of the 20th Century, 2001: A Space Odyssey would be the film that ensured Gary’s place in film history.

For over six decades Gary Lockwood has continued to be a familiar face on television and films, and today he is still looking for his next hustle, and is a regular at autograph shows, science fiction conventions, and memorabilia shows. I spoke to Gary just weeks before he was about to go on a tour of Australia with 2001 co-star Keir Dullea, where he gave me the straight dope on his career in Hollywood.

READ FULL INTERVIEW

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